Why We Need to Fight for Our Students: The Example of Stephanie Land
It is a commonplace to say that our campuses need to be “student centered.” That we need to “meet students where they are” and recognize that our students are less likely to be the white, middle-class 18–22-year-olds that for so long comprised the overwhelming majority of college and university students at predominantly white institutions. We know that today’s students are more likely to be first generation, low income, and of nontraditional college age and to have more complex personal circumstances than ever before. We have read about their housing, financial, and food instability. We know that the complexities of our current moment—post-pandemic, politically volatile, and environmentally compromised—make their lives as students more fraught than ours were when we were undergraduates.
We know these things intellectually, but for too many of us they are viscerally remote. It remains difficult for the faculty and administrators who develop policy to understand the lived realities of students for whom a college education is an almost insurmountable mountain. And that is an important reason why every one of us who works in higher education needs to read Stephanie Land’s Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education (2023). Class continues the story begun in Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive (2019), which became a Netflix series. In Class, we join Land as she struggles as a single parent to raise her daughter and earn a BA in creative writing at the University of Montana, supporting herself through a patchwork income from her work as a house cleaner, child support, scholarships, financial aid, loans, and public assistance.
We also need to read Class because it serves as a powerful reminder that despite what we may read in the media and hear from politicians about the lack of value in obtaining a bachelor’s degree (especially in the humanities), obtaining a college degree remains a fundamentally important and life-changing goal for so many of our students.
Land explains her determination to earn her undergraduate degree (as a step toward her ultimate educational goal) and the struggle it entails very clearly:
Not even three steps on campus, and I knew I had to fight for the original reason I applied: to get my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. In those years, U of M’s writing program was still touted as one of the top ten in the country. . . . the chance at immersion into this greatness was the only thing I had ever really wanted. I saw it as my one opportunity to be a writer—a real writer. (pp. 46–47)
Her need to fight—and to fight multiple systems simultaneously—emerges throughout her memoir. In addition to the expected struggles to obtain appropriate child support from her ex, we watch Land struggle to understand campus policies (such as how to establish in-state residency), to find time complete her course assignments, to find childcare (not so readily available on most campuses), to maintain housing appropriate to withstand frigid Montana winters, and to make sure that her young daughter is adequately fed. It is daunting to read. Particularly moving (and troubling) are her quick and seemingly offhand references to the complexities of being a poor student-parent. Discussing seeking financial assistance for childcare at the YMCA, she notes, “I stopped by the YMCA to ask about the financial aid, bringing my purple folder with me in case they need proof of income or expenses or things like utility bills or an envelope that had been mailed to me—the requirements for proof of need never seemed to be the same wherever you went” (p. 21). Land fights not just with community agencies and the legal system (including a judge who seems unsupportive of Land’s decision to invest in her future by obtaining an education instead of working full time) but also with her campus culture—in ways that should make us all reflect.
For instance, the concept of office hours baffles her: “I thought ‘office hours’ meant that was the only time I could reach a professor outside of class, and that it was intended only for an urgent question or emergency—sort of like a doctor’s office hours. . . . I found out later that some of my fellow students took office hours as an opportunity to introduce themselves, build a relationship, and eventually get letters of recommendation or suggestions for scholarships” (p. 174). While faculty have recognized for some time the need to do more to help students understand the value of connecting with their professors outside class (and I am pleased to report that some faculty at my own university have been actively taking steps to transform the concept of office hours), the clarity with which Land articulates her lack of understanding powerfully demonstrates the significance of the problem and the need for change.
Land’s description of her experience also exposes a problem with the structures our campuses put in place to help address students’ food, housing, and financial insecurity. For instance, Land reports that although the campus center allows students to use an EBT card to pay for food, she was generally “too embarrassed” to use it because she “never saw anyone else using theirs” (p. 74). The free food pantries that most campuses have created to address the widespread issue of student food insecurity need to work to overcome the embarrassment that Land describes. Land acknowledges as well that, because of her race, she was able to benefit from the cultural assumptions that accompany the notion of whiteness and be more camouflaged than she would have been as a student of color. She recognizes that, as a white person, her difficulties and interactions on campus would have been great had she been Black or Brown.
Faculty attitudes emerge from Land’s memoir as another area that needs work if our campuses are going to be fully inclusive and welcoming. While Land acknowledges some professors who encouraged her, recognized her need to care for her daughter (which entailed both occasionally bringing her child to class and missing some classes), and mentored her, others impeded her progress. Most notably, she describes one male faculty member who seemed to show inappropriate interest in the sexual moments in Land’s writings and whose persistence in dwelling on them during one-on-one discussions about her prose discouraged Land from seeking his guidance. She describes a female professor who disapproved of Land’s tattoos, her style of dressing, and her status as a mother. Both these professors had the power to significantly derail Land’s academic career.
It hardly needs saying that the role of faculty should be to support our students’ success and to ensure that all our students receive the best education and the fullest opportunities that our institutions have to offer. Land’s experience provides us with clear examples of why we must keep working to ensure that all our colleagues embrace that commitment—and why we need to pursue the work of strengthening diversity, inclusivity, and equity efforts on our campuses.
That is the value of Land’s memoir: as she describes the hardships she experienced while obtaining a university education, we vicariously see how daunting our campuses are for our students, and we are reminded of how important an undergraduate degree—even one in creative writing!—is to our students. Her book reminds us of how hard we should be fighting for our students and how much work we have left to do to make our campuses truly student centered.
Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the former dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.